Increasing Community Member Participation in Enterprise Social Software Platforms Through Leadership Communication

Increasing Community Member Participation in Enterprise Social Software Platforms Through Leadership Communication

Article and Author Information

Jessica Catz (MSLOC 2013) wrote this article in March 2013 for the Capstone 3 Research Analysis and Interpretation course. This executive summary assignment is the culmination of a nine-month capstone research project. Jessica is an Account Supervisor for Insidedge, an employee communications and engagement firm. She is passionate about engaging employees and colleagues to create a lasting impact on an organization. Prior to working at Insidedge, Jessica worked in the advertising industry.


It was the goal of this research to illuminate some effective practices regarding leadership communications in enterprise social software platforms to help organizational leaders (and the internal communicators that support them) to best understand how to effectively engage in these environments. More specifically, this study examines the relationship between select leadership communication characteristics and employee desire to participate in ESSP's. The results of this study propose that the affirming communication, reciprocity and frequency of communication each increase the sociability factors of enjoyment, belonging and usefulness and most importantly, participation in their ESSP. Conversely, the aggressiveness and argumentativeness decrease these sociability factors and therefore also decrease intention to participate. As a result, leaders looking to increase the adoption and viability of their communities should develop and exhibit affirming, reciprocal and frequent communication styles when engaging in their ESSP.


Today's leaders are expected to perform in a global maze of interconnectedness that crosses time zones, national boundaries and cultures (Avolio & Kahai, 2003). This is due in part to the proliferation of Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, blogs, social networks and media sharing sites, that have created an evolution in the way the modern workforce functions. One technology platform in particular, the Enterprise Social Software Platform (ESSP), is fostering a paradigm shift within organizations by creating a social structure constructed through a technology that places power within social communities, as opposed to the institution (Fenwick, 2012). ESSP's are social media spaces that are driven and oftentimes managed, by users and the primary intention of an ESN is to facilitate collaboration, knowledge sharing and serendipitous interaction as means of achieving organizational goals (McAfee, 2009). As a result, through these platforms employees are empowered to drive change, innovation and growth (Fenwick, 2012).

Fueled by the meteoric evolution of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia, the popularity and implementation of ESSP's is exploding. Starting with Andrew McAffe's ground breaking working on the concept of Enterprise 2.0, the world of social business has skyrocketed. Today, there are dozens and dozens of ESSP platforms like Jive, Backpack, Yammer, Sharepoint and Chatter, just to name a few. The unprecedented growth of ESSP's is pushing leaders to cultivate and leverage these communities to reach organizational objectives and maintain a competitive advantage in a relentless global marketplace. In response to this need, hundreds of blogs, websites and even conferences are dedicated solely to this topic, each proposing theories on technology adoption, design and measurement. Organizational leaders are actively seeking advice and best practices to ensure successful implementation and to understand best the capabilities of ESSP's so they can unlock their true potential.

As these technologies take root in the modern institution, the modern leader is forced to contend with new communication techniques that depart from the familiar face-to-face or unidirectional methods of communication (i.e., memo's, presentations and mass email). They are being asked to participate in a new type of conversation, a virtual dialogue that occurs in real-time between users. However, because this is a relatively new world, leaders are faced with many unknowns. Best practices are hard to come by and those that do exist are shrouded in mystery. This is especially true from an enterprise perspective because many organizations are not able, or not willing, to share details about their technology or processes for fear of competitors. Yet despite these challenges, the fact remains that engaging with others in computer-mediated environments is now considered to be a requisite facet of leadership (Kolb, Francoer & Prussia, 2009).

The Research Question

The cry for help is growing louder. Therefore, in an effort to answer the communication needs of organizational leaders entering the world of ESN's, this study will attempt to answer the following question:

What leadership communication characteristics are related to community member participation in Enterprise Social Software Platforms?

This question is designed to explore the relationship between leadership communication characteristics and employee desire to participate in ESSP's in an attempt to uncover effective communication characteristics, as well as how these communication characteristics influence member interest in the community.

The fields of leadership, organizational science and communication studies have each made strides in their explorations of online leadership, virtual communities and online leadership communications. Many studies illuminate the effectiveness of various leadership communication characteristics such as reciprocity, frequency or verbal aggressiveness and have applied these traits to digital environments (Preece, 2001; Infante & Gorden, 1991; Huffaker, 2010). Over the past five years, with the mounting influence of web 2.0 technologies and social networking websites, many theorists and researchers have begun to narrow their sights on the role of leadership and leadership communications in online communities. Topic areas vary from leader-member interaction and community success measures, to technology design and community management. Although a few of the studies encountered examined the relationship between leadership communication and community member participation and interest in online communities, none specifically explore this relationship within ESSP communities. While the findings of studies on virtual leadership communication provide grounding insights, at present, no empirical work has proven the validity of these findings within ESSP's.

Therefore, it is the goal of this research to illuminate some effective practices regarding leadership communications in enterprise social networks and to help organizational leaders (and the internal communicators that support them) to best understand how to effectively engage in these environments.

Leadership Communications and Virtual Community Success

Before examining the nature of the relationship between leadership communication traits and community member intention to participate, it is first necessary to clearly define what exactly, an online community is. Not surprisingly, a precise definition of a virtual community is not uniformly agreed upon. However, there are underlying themes that create a unified perspective. Donthu and Porter (2008), describe online communities as a collection of people with common interests and whose interactions are supported by technology and guided by policies and norms. Balsubramanian and Mahajan (2001), whose work predates Donthu and Porter, provide a more robust definition of online communities as any entity that presents the following characteristics: 1) a collection of people, 2) rational members, 3) virtual interactions without collocation 4) a social exchange process and 5) an objective, identity or shared interest of members. Other works describe online communities in a similar fashion, each agreeing that technology, shared interests and interaction without collocation are core traits.

Previous research on leadership communication traits covers significant ground and weaves together perspectives stemming from work on leadership type, communication style, communication activity and leader behavior. There are clear areas of focus as it relates to leadership communication in online communities; emergent versus assigned leadership communication, verbal aggressiveness and argumentativeness, linguistic prowess and communication behaviors. A wide variety of communication traits have been identified, however this study focuses on affirming communication, reciprocity, frequency, aggressiveness and argumentativeness because these traits have the most substantial amount of validated data from previous studies.

Online community success is a growing and highly studied topic of interest that is gaining steam with the recent increase in social media technologies. A seminal work produced by Preece (2001), presents a grounding theory that two factors: sociability and usability, are critical to community member participation and community success. Sociability is concerned with the software, policies and practices that facilitate online interaction and it consists of three components: purpose, people and policies (Preece, 2001).

Preece's framework presents several measurable characteristics of sociability through metrics that are now used to define participation and interactivity, such as messages per member, number of messages over time, interactivity (thread depth), reciprocity, quality, number of participants and finally, trustworthiness (Preece, 2001). Usability on the other hand, is related specifically to the function and design of the technology platform on which the online community is built (Preece, 2001). Although the theories of usability present important factors that contribute to community member participation, due to time constraints, the focus of this study is solely on the factors of sociability and their relationship to the previously outlined communication traits.

Research Methods

Figure 1

To best understand leadership communication characteristics and their relationship to online community member participation, a survey was designed based upon an adaptation of Lu, Phang and Yu's (2011) model, which examined the relationship between desired aspects of online communities and the community's perceived usefulness, enjoyment and a sense of belonging. This model was evolved to draw connections to the following independent variables of leadership communications:

  • Argumentativeness
  • Aggressiveness
  • Reciprocity
  • Frequency
  • Degree of affirmative communication

This evolution of his model is appropriate for this study because it creates a framework for measuring the relationship between specific communication traits and the three key components of community sociability, each of which is a critical factor that is proven by Preece (2001) to increase member participation in online communities.

The survey consisted of 33 questions; 28 closed-response and five open-response. Twenty-five questions addressed the relationship between the independent variables listed above and the dependent variables of perceived usefulness, enjoyment and sense of belonging; three questions requested demographic, tenure in the community and use pattern data. The five open-response questions addressed the influence of each independent variable on community member intention to participate.

This survey was distributed to the ESSP community members of a leading healthcare insurance provider. The community has over 22,000 members. Survey participants were recruited via posts within the community itself, that were pre-drafted and uploaded by the community manager. There were a total of 122 responses, 95 of which completed all multiple choice questions.

Analysis Methods

Data collected through this study was examined through a combination of statistical and thematic analysis. To begin, averages were calculated for both independent and dependent variables. The goal of this analysis was two-fold: To determine which communication characteristics are most likely to influence perceived usefulness, enjoyment, sense of belonging, acceptance and intention to participate; and to determine which factors of sociability are most influential as it relates to leadership communication characteristics.

In addition to mean analysis, a Pearson's R correlation analysis was conducted to determine the statistical significance of independent and dependent variables. A series of histograms that measure the relationship between duration of membership and frequency of visit against each leadership communication characteristic was also examined. Other statistical analysis included a gender T-test and response frequencies. Finally, a thematic examination was applied to all open-ended responses to identify additional insights, paradoxes and parallels with statistical analysis.

Research Findings

Quantitative Analysis

The first level analysis considered the frequency of responses across variables. When examining the sociability factors of enjoyment, belonging, usefulness, acceptance and participation by the various leadership communication characteristics, it became clear that affirming communication was one of the traits that is most acceptable and most likely to increase intention to participate and sense of enjoyment.

Figure 2 Figure 3

In fact, 80% of respondents (n=79) indicated that affirming communication is acceptable in their community and increases participation and 75% (n=71).

Figure 4

Reciprocity was also well received with 74% (n=70) indicating that the trait would increase sense of belonging, 75% (n=71) indicating an increase in intention to participate and 78% (n=74) confirming that reciprocity increases usefulness.

Figure 5 Figure 6

Of the five communication traits, frequency of communication received the highest percentage of neutral responses, the highest of which was 34% (n=33) for frequencies influence on participation. Not surprisingly, aggressiveness and argumentativeness both proved to be factors that decreased enjoyment, belonging, usefulness, acceptance and participation. However, when comparing the two traits, argumentativeness is both more acceptable (5%) and more useful (5%).

Figure 7 Figure 8 Figure 9 Figure 10 Figure 11

A second level of analysis examined the mean scores across sociability factors and leadership communication characteristics. Through this process it was discovered that the mean for aggressiveness was almost identical for usefulness (m=1.39), enjoyment (m=1.38) and belonging (m=1.39), indicating that although aggressiveness decreases the perception of these three factors, there is no meaningful difference between them.

However, aggressiveness had a higher mean response for both acceptance (m=1.49) and participation (m=1.44). Similarly, argumentativeness scored nearly the same for participation (m=1.78), usefulness (m=1.79) and sense of belonging (m=1.78). Respondents appeared to agree that leadership argumentativeness was more acceptable in the community (m=1.92) than its negative counterpart, aggressiveness. Frequency of communication received the highest mean response rate for sense of belonging (m=4.02), but was unable to break through neutral scoring for the other four traits.

The final level of quantitative analysis assessed the relationship between leadership communications traits. It asked the question: What is the relationship between variables? A Pearson Correlation test was conducted across all variables to better understand these relationships. All variables were tested against the original 5 point scale and these tests indicated statistically significant (p>.05) relationships both within and across variable comparisons (see Appendix for further details). For example, when affirming communication increases sense of belonging, reciprocity will increase intention to participate in the community.

Qualitative Analysis

In addition to the multiple choice survey questions, participants were also asked a series of open-ended questions to assess how each of the leadership communication traits influenced their decision to participate in the community. As a result, open-ended responses were measured attitudes regarding the various leadership communication traits: affirming communication (n=71), frequency (n=57), reciprocity (n=46), aggressiveness (n=51) and argumentativeness (n=47).

Responses to these open-ended questions revealed a variety of subjective themes:

Affirming communication increases intention to participate and sense of belonging. In fact many cite it as a requirement for participation. Affirming communication also promotes idea sharing.

  • "Friendly and relaxed [leadership] communication encourages participation and engagement from others."
  • "[Affirming communication] reduces anxiety about giving feedback or submitting new ideas."

Frequency of communication can increase participation, particularly if posts remain relevant and useful. It also demonstrates leader support for the community.

  • "[Frequency of communication] depends on the content matter."
  • "For me, quantity does not equal quality."

Reciprocity can increase sense of belonging, participation and frequency of dialogue while creating a safe space to share ideas.

  • "If we don't have reciprocity, we don't have dialogue, which means you don't value my opinion which means I am spitting in the wind. Trust me-I don't do that very long."

Aggressiveness can not only decrease participation, but is capable of eliminating completely. It instill fear and closes lines of communication between community members.

  • "If there was an aggressive leader it would kill the conversation. No one wants to be belittled or ridicule by peers, let alone leadership."
  • "Aggressiveness makes someone feel like an outsider and insignificant. It affects the sense of belonging most but through that disengages a person from the community."

Argumentativeness can be acceptable depending on content and intent, but will likely decrease participation, especially when combined with aggressiveness.

  • "Argumentativeness is an acceptable form of communication unless it is accompanied by aggressiveness. It is at that point that it becomes a deterrent to belonging and community."


The survey design combined independent and dependent variables in each question and as a result, prohibited a direct comparison between both variable groups. For example, it was not possible due to the construction of the survey items, to determine the relationship between frequency and reciprocity because each was tied directly to a sociability factor. This might have illuminated the differences between the two traits as they stand alone. As a result, the data was in some ways, too granular and therefore had to rely more heavily on descriptive statistical analysis.

The community itself also presented a limitation to this study. Although survey questions were designed not to seek information about specific leaders, it was apparent in some of the open ended responses that leaders were not extremely active in the existing community. Selecting a community with a more active leadership group would allow users to respond based on experience, rather than hypotheticals. Basing responses on actual experiences could alter results. In addition, the nature of the relationship with the participating organization required reliance upon an internal source for the recruitment and distribution of the survey. This is a reality of conducting a survey within a firewalled community that is not open to external users.


To influence the success of ESSP communities, leaders must display a number of factors that influence the perceived sociability and usability of the community itself. The data collected in this study reveals several interesting insights.

Affirming communication is mandatory. It is clear that affirming communication is not only acceptable from leaders; it also increases sense of enjoyment and participation. In fact, qualitative data reveals that affirming communication is in many cases a prerequisite for participation in the community. In addition, if one factor of communication increases others will as well. For example, as a leaders frequency of affirming communication increases, the sense of belonging that affirming communication creates also increases. This is a powerful finding; that a leader who can exhibit affirming communication traits is meeting a critical need of members that can drive their desire to engage in the community.

Reciprocity increases dialogue. Reciprocity of communication is also tightly linked to increases in sense of belonging, participation and the ESSP's perceived usefulness. Interestingly, reciprocity was the only trait that demonstrated a clear connection with perceived usefulness, primarily because of the role it plays in facilitating dialogue and idea sharing. As a result, a secondary insight is that usefulness is to a degree determined by the ability of users to interact in a safe and mutual dialogue that demonstrates respect for differing perspectives.

Frequency is a secondary influence. Interestingly, a leader's frequency of communication received relatively neutral scores and qualitative data illuminated that it is less influential in increasing intention to participate in the community. However, correlational data revealed that when combined with affirming communication and reciprocity, frequency of communication can increase sense of belonging, enjoyment and community usefulness. This means then that while the frequency of a leaders communication is in and of itself not a critical factor in member participation, it is a secondary trait that can be layered on to the other positive communication traits to increase influence on participation.

Aggressiveness and Argumentativeness are turn offs. The negative relationship between aggressive and argumentative communication must also be acknowledged. As expected, both traits were responsible for decreasing members' interest and participation across all sociability factors. The small twist comes from the argumentativeness trait, which open-ended response data reveals is considered acceptable to a degree, primarily as long as it does not cross the boundary to aggressiveness. The key insight here is that these two traits nearly guaranteed to squelch a members' intention to participate in the community and thus has the ability to reduce the community's viability.


This data clearly demonstrates that a leader's communication has the ability to influence a community member's participation and that the traits of affirming communication, reciprocity and to a degree, frequency, have the ability to increase sense of belonging, usefulness and enjoyment.

Communicators and leaders who are planning to begin or continue communicating within their ESSP should work to develop a tone and style that adopts these traits. Communicators could consider creating training curriculum for organizational leaders that focuses on sharing examples and action-learning scenarios in which leader's craft sample responses. Ideally, a practice community would be created to simulate the experience of real-time dialogue with users, to provide leader's with an opportunity to practice managing and moving between each of the traits fluidly and with the right level of frequency.

Outside of training opportunities, organizations with leaders who are actively communicating within their communities could measure the perception of a leader's communication against these traits. This benchmarking data could be used to evolve the leader's approach in an effort to increase sociability factors of the community and to increase the acceptance of the leader's communication within the ESSP. Finally if a community is struggling to take hold within an organization, those leading adoption efforts could consider strategically leveraging the affirming, reciprocal and frequent communication of selected leaders throughout the business as a method of increasing participation and interest in the community. As this study demonstrates, user's intention to participate will increase when leaders communicate this way within the community. If done correctly, leaders who apply these techniques can foster dialogue, safety and knowledge sharing between members, which strengthens sociability factors and in turn, the ESSP's likelihood of success.

Future Research Opportunities

As previously acknowledged, this research focused solely on sociability, not usability factors of virtual communities. Further research could examine the relationship between usability factors and leadership communication traits, particularly how certain communication tools such as liking and sharing allow the leader to express these communication traits more easily. It would be equally useful to understand which of those tools features and functions are most effective at driving participation of community members.

In addition, the design of the survey prohibited the decoupling of leadership traits from each sociability factor for grouped analysis. In the future, a survey which focuses on asking questions regarding sociability that are independent of leadership communications might reveal even stronger statistically significant relationship between particular factors.


  • Balasubramanian, S., and Mahajan, V. (2011). The economic leverage of the virtual Community. Journal of Electronic Commerce, 5(3), 103-138.
  • Donthu, N., & Porter, C. E. (2008). Cultivating and harvesting trust in online communities. Management Science, 54(1), 113-128.
  • Fenwick, N. (2012, March 31). The CIO's guide to social computing leadership. Forrester Research Inc., for CIO's.
  • Huffaker, D. (2010). Dimensions of leadership and social influence in online communities. Human Communication Research, 539-617.
  • Infante, D. A., & Rancer, A. S. (1982). A conceptualization and measure of argumentativeness. Journal of Personality Assessment, 46(1), 72-80.
  • Kolb, D. G., Francoer, J. & Prussia, G. (2009). Connectivity and leadership: The influence of online activity on closeness and effectiveness. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 15(4), 342-352. doi: 10.1177/1548051809331503
  • Lu, X., Phang, C. W., & Yu, J. (2011). Encouraging participation in virtual communities through usability and sociability development: An empirical investigation. Database for Advances in Information Systems, 42(3), 96-114.
  • Preece, J. (2001). Sociability and usability in online communities: determining and measuring success. Behavior and Information Technology, 20(5), 347-356. International conference on system sciences.

Contact Us

Master's in Learning & Organizational Change

First Floor, Annenberg Hall
2120 Campus Drive
Evanston, IL 60208
Northwestern University

Phone: 847/491-7376